A bitter bit of irony

My dear friend in southwest Ireland, Eddie MacEoin, sent me a picture of the town in Tipperary, Ireland that has the same name as my first novel: Sharavogue. I had hoped to visit there last summer but ran out of time. In Ireland there is never enough time.



I didn’t name the book after the town, but had stumbled across the name during my research. Its meaning–bitter place or bitter land–captured my imagination, because my book features an Irish girl indentured on a sugar plantation on the island of Montserrat. What a sweet bit of irony to name the plantation Sharavogue?


Well, writers are often the recipients of stinging reviews, whether warranted or not, and one of my reviewers took me to task claiming I had that meaning wrong. One of us is definitely wrong, but I have two good sources that agree, so, I’m just saying (snark…), and I find it a beautiful and mysterious-sounding name reminiscent of Scheherazade.

The quote below is from a biography, The Red Earl, the Extraordinary Life of the Earl of Huntingdon, by Selina Hastings.

“Sharavogue–the name means ‘bitter land’–is situated halfway along the road between Roscrea and Parsonstown (now Birr)…The tiny hamlet of Sharavogue lies on the edge of the Bog of Allen, surrounded by pleasant, well-farmed country, gently undulating and characterised by meadows and small copses, by bushy hedgerows and fast-running streams.”

After such a description, I looked for something following to explain why the town was so named, but there was no answer. Maybe, as Eddie’s picture suggests, it becomes a rather wet and dismal place in fall and winter.

The Sharavogue in my story depicts a time in history when the Irish were even more popular as slave labor than the Africans. As reported by IrishCentral recently, from a blog in Scientific American, the Irish clan system was largely abolished after the Battle of Kinsale at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The English seized Ulster and sent some 30,000 prisoners of war to be sold as slaves in the colonies of America and the West Indies.

“In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters.”

The Irish slaves were actually cheaper and often received harsher punishments at the hands of planters, according to the article.

The 17th century is rich with stories that had profound effects on the course of history, and yet is is overlooked by many readers and writers. Watch for my new blog series on the 17th century, coming soon!

SharavogueCoverWhy not embark on an adventure in Irish history? Sharavogue makes an excellent gift for yourself or someone you know who loves historical ficion. Find it at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, iBooks and other independent booksellers.

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Setting yourself apart for readers

Part 9 in the “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

Picking up where I left off on my series about my writing process for Sharavogue, today I am focusing on “What makes your book different from other books like it?” This is a question that might come during a media interview or from an anyone who is considering reading your book. To answer, I had to do my homework. When I selected the time period for my story, I searched for books in the Cromwellian years, the Interregnum, and on the bookends of that period during the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, the Restoration.

SharavogueCover2Specifically during Cromwell’s time there were very few historical novels – I found only two, in fact — that take place in this turbulent period. I have since found several more but I think I am safe to say I have written of a time often overlooked by other authors. So, for readers like me who also like to learn about history as they read, it might be a good choice.  Sharavogue (the title of my novel but also the name of the plantation where the protagonist was indentured) also illuminates what life was like for slaves and indentured servants on the sugar plantations of the 17th century. These plantations were a boon to England’s economy but could not have been profitable without slave labor.

An intriguing  and distinguishing fact is that a colony of Irish planters developed on the island of Montserrat, and they too had to own slaves. The focus is on an Irish colony and perspective rather than an English one.

My style of writing is also quite different. I have used devices and structure to keep the book light, exciting and fast paced, but still packed with story, action and historical information — just enough, and interwoven as best I could so the story did not become a history lesson. My page count is under 300, not the tome of some historical novels. This required quite a bit of brutal editing, but I knew the costs of printing would make a larger book a difficult sell for an unknown author. Some people like this style — the book keeps them engaged so that they read it all the way through in a day or two. (One reader laughingly complained that it was my fault she did not get her Easter cooking done). But others have told me they would have liked more time for contemplation by the characters.

My hope was always that after finishing the book my readers would come away satisfied, entertained and informed. I also hoped to tell a good story about the Irish, who have held my imagination since childhood. A recent reviewer captured the gist of the story just as I had hoped:

“The Irish were no different, after all, than the English. Cruelty reigned. We were without justice, without recourse. We were without hope.” Fifteen-year-old Elvy Burke only wants to live up to her destiny. As the daughter of a great warrior, she dreams of being a leader of her people and a defender of her country. But Oliver Cromwell and his brutal army change her destiny. After cursing Cromwell to his face, she flees her village determined to find a way to kill Cromwell and free her land. She thinks that only Cromwell is brutal, but she discovers the hard way as she becomes an indentured servant in the West Indies, that the English do not have a monopoly on brutality. Elvy learns to survive and she finds kindness in unexpected places. She uncovers her own strengths as she fights her way back to her home in Ireland.

via Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: Sharavogue : A Novel.

This will be my last post in this series, unless any readers have additional questions that I will be most happy to answer. I look forward to any comments or suggestions for future posts. Best wishes and happy writing!

Is history relevant in a 140-character world?

Part 8 of my “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

In this edition I’m focusing on another question asked about historical novels: “How is this relevant in today’s society?” Sharavogue takes place in the 1650s, far removed in both time and location to what most of us experience today. But it is based in fact, so an obvious answer is to refer to the quote attributed to philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or the same with similar wording attributed to Winston Churchill and several others — all the way to Jesse Ventura. Then there is the ever-positive Kurt Vonnegut, who says “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

As one who loves history and historical fiction, I sometimes wonder why writers need bother with trying to prove history relevant. It is, because it is. History is fascinating and woven from the lives and experiences of everyone who lived before us. Most humans love a good story, no matter what century it comes from. When I read historical fiction I also love learning about what life was like at a different time, and what circumstances caused things to be that way, and why people made the choices they did. It always in some way informs my own life without the author having to draw direct connections.

HouseGirl I recently read House Girl by Tara Conklin, which flips back and forth between pre-Civil War slavery and a present-day lawyer trying to attribute works of art to the slave girl. The whole story is about connecting past to present, and parts of it were quite good, but I found the historical portions by far the most interesting and well written, and the present-day portions sometimes feeling forced and distracting.

I also recently stumbled across The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews, a book someone had given my husband when he retired. It is basically a trip back in time to get seven philosophies for success, with the underlying message that each of us has a gift and the things we do have value and importance, whether we know it or not at the time. At one point we visit the Battle of Little Round Top where Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s desperate last-minute charge is key to the Union victory there, which ultimately leads to the end of war, the end of slavery in America, and the growth of a superpower that is able to do good in the world. An oversimplification to be sure, but a strong message about relevance.TravelersGift

In my book, I chose to stay in the 1650s. While the relevancy is not mapped for readers as in the books I’ve just described, I think it derives from the characters themselves and the struggles and obstacles they work to overcome. One of my readers talked to me at length about the character Tempest Wingfield, who becomes a plantation master only because he inherited when his father died. She related strongly to his internal ragings against a life he never chose, and the sorrows he felt nonetheless for not being a better son, honoring and loving his father while he had the chance. Other readers related strongly to the pain of the poor choices Elvy Burke makes that lead her down more difficult pathways. As noted in an earlier post, Sharavogue itself (the plantation on Montserrat) is a character, passively supporting the plantation lifestyle  in its own harsh existence.

Who has lost a loving parent and not felt deep regret? Who has not made poor choices in life and learned from them? And who has not witnessed injustices large or small and felt powerless to change them?

True relevance comes from the heart. But on a political level I must add that Oliver Cromwell (the bad guy in my book) remains today a relevant and controversial figure. I talked once with a British citizen who believed the commonwealth Cromwell established was the right and appropriate idea for his government, and the monarchy was irrelevant. Yet the Cromwell name is mostly associated with the 16th century Thomas who destroyed the Catholic monasteries, and the 17th century Oliver who slaughtered the Irish.

These stories and the jigsaw puzzle of factors that created them are impossible to deliver in a tweet or a Facebook post, and I worry about the lack of reading that could surely lead to the “forgetting” of history. (For example, I shudder when I hear women say they want to be stay-at-home moms, having lived through the time when women fought tooth-and-nail for the right to work and vote, and still struggle for equal pay.) But I take hope from something another writer once said to me: “People don’t care about history until they realize they have one.” And then it becomes all-important.

How memory informs story

Part 7 of my “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

It’s amazing sometimes, where the pathways of thought will lead. This example comes from when I was researching currency in the 17th century. In my novel Sharavogue, a coin is a central icon throughout the story so I needed to find just the right one. There is much to be found about Elizabethan currency, but so far not as much that is specific to my time period.

sixpenceAnyway, the word “sixpence” set me off.  It reminded me of “Half a Sixpence,” the 1967 musical based on a novel by H.G. Wells and starring British pop star of that time, Tommy Steele. The title song began to play in my head. I knew it well because my parents went to this show when I was 11 years old. They came home from their date absolutely bubbling. They were happy. They were both singing. They bought the soundtrack and played it frequently. And when my father sang it was a grand thing – not that he was a great singer (he wasn’t bad), but it meant there was happiness and joy in our household. When he was happy, we could all be happy. The converse was also true.

But then I remembered that this kind of happiness went from occasional to rare and did not last. Over the next eight years things would tumble, my parents would divorce, and I would go off to college bewildered and distressed. It was the 60s and 70s – sex, drugs, rock & roll. Everything was bewildering. Our family of five exploded, each going our own ways, and our ties to each other became thin and fragile.

Then I began to consider my father’s viewpoint in all of this, which I believe was primarily one of disappointment. Probably from before he and my mother even married, he had set his sights on having a family and hoped to raise three boys. He must have imagined them as smart and good-looking, athletic – probably winning ribbons and trophies on the swim team, playing on high school and college football teams, and then more ribbons and trophies riding hunter-jumpers with power and finesse. Then those sons would go on to make fortunes in their professions and sire grandsons in their own image, establishing my father’s legacy forever.  Was it God’s sense of humor that instead that instead gave my father three sensitive girls who loved dolls and pretty clothes? (There is no reason now why a girl can’t do all the same things the boys could do, but in the those days, as the TV series Mad Men demonstrates, the options were different and doors were not so open for women.)

Then I arrived at the next thought layer, focusing on my father’s disappointment. And I always seem to come ‘round to this. None of his daughters were particularly athletic, and I’m sure he thought we were destined to become housewives, secretaries or school teachers rather than captains of industry. I focused on journalism, and I recalled one morning when I was visiting him while on break from college and we were having breakfast. He told me if he was ever to write his memoirs he would start it in a particular way. I can’t even remember now what way that was, because my own young and disappointed mind was preparing to lash out him. Instead of encouraging him to write his memoir and offering to help – which is what I would like to do today – I smirked and said “That’s probably what they would tell you not to do.”

I think the conversation pretty much ended after that, not that I recall the rest clearly. My punishment is that my father wrote no memoir, and when he died suddenly I realized (with the impact of a brick squarely between the eyes) that I knew almost nothing about him, his life as a young man, his dreams, his turning points. My husband says that if my father wanted to write his memoir, he would have written it – my stupid comment would not have had the power to stop it. But then, to take on such a task one has to be inspired. I think my father felt he did not have a legacy he could be proud of.

Before he died my father once said to me he had reached the top of the mountain and was now descending the other side. He did not like it. He had nothing to show for his life. I said, “You have three daughters.” This elicited barely a shrug.

He was disappointed. And I was disappointed. Perhaps it was not so much disappointment in his daughters, as I had until now believed. We know he loved us. We know in his own way he was proud of us. Maybe he just felt that he should have done more with his life, and so it was this, along with self-doubt and perhaps even contempt, that caused him not to write about it.

As I considered all of this, I realized the value for a writer is to follow the thought process through when memories come up, to discover some perspectives that might not have been clear before. It may be painful and so it is easier to just turn away and focus on something else, but when relived in the mind these thoughts and emotions inform the depths of story. My first novel was about the life of a man of my father’s time – I did not have my father’s history, so I simply made it up. It was a satisfying process, and I was able to inject much of the feeling I had experienced in our family life (write what you know, as they say).

I never published that novel. Someday I may return to it and reconsider. It is based on the history of his times, but it is still only a story. I will never really know what my father experienced, what he thought or how he felt. I wish even now I could give a half a sixpence for his thoughts.

In writing Sharavogue, what I perceived as his disappointment informed the feelings and character of Tempest Wingfield, master of the plantation on the island of Montserrat. He too had dreams and ideas that were never realized, because he was trapped in a destiny of his father’s making. It was his father’s dream to have a plantation, but his father’s death and other circumstances had determined this character’s unwanted fate, and so the actions and behavior are ruled by his anger and sorrow.

Meet My Villains

Part 6 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

I once dated both a Roger and an Osborne, and neither proved to be very good dating material, but they did not reach the villainous status of this guy: Roger Osborne. Straight out of history, I did not need to invent him as the bad guy in Sharavogue. He showed up on his own.

But more about him in a moment. This is a post about the characters in the story, and particularly the villains who actually drive the action. In Sharavogue there are three villains. The first one we meet is Oliver Cromwell himself. Cromwell and his New Model Army have just defeated the Royalists in a bloody civil war. Cromwell has emerged as England’s new leader and has beheaded King Charles I in London. Now he comes to Ireland to cut down the Irish rebelling against English plantation on their soil.

Bust of Cromwell from the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon.

Bust of Cromwell from the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon.

Our heroine Elvy Burke confronts this powerful figure when he marches on her village. Cromwell had facial warts which helps add to his villainous image. It is Elvy’s hatred and vow to kill Cromwell that drives her forward and commands her decision making.

Through a series of events Elvy soon confronts the second villain of sorts, Sharavogue itself. The word Sharavogue comes from the Irish meaning “bitter place,” and it is the name given to a sugar plantation on the Island of Montserrat in the West Indies. The plantation system of the time depends on slave labor, and Elvy becomes an indentured servant struggling to survive against the customs, hard labor and the disease-ridden environment.

Because of her vow, Elvy cannot rest until she finds a way back to Cromwell to assassinate him. Thus, she seeks out the governor of Montserrat for assistance, and he is none other than Roger Osborne. In the 1650s, Osborne became governor of Montserrat when the original governor, Anthony Briskett, died. Briskett was revered for his vision and ability to engage and encourage fellow settlers and plantaton owners, and build a prosperous economy for the tiny island based primarily on tobacco crops. Briskett owned the best plantation on the island, married Osborne’s sister Elizabeth, and they had one son. Roger owned the adjacent plantation, but thought the grass was greener on Briskett’s side of the fence.

When Briskett died, Osborne’s palms must have itched to get his hands on Briskett’s plantation, but Elizabeth still wanted a husband and father for her young son. She married a Dutch planter and gentleman by the name of Samuel Waad.

What happens next is infamous for this period of history, and author Richard S. Dunn (Sugar and Slaves) lays it out like a play, listing all the characters by role. Picture Osborne, a massive spider, waiting for the perfect opportunity to weave his web and capture the fly.

Waad is a wealthy merchant and a bit of a dandy, but also very steeped in the rules of honor. When Osborne has Waad’s house guest arrested for beating a local tailor with his cane (what was the tailor’s offense, I wonder?), Waad is embarrassed and insulted. He writes a letter to Osborne that not only complains against the arrest, but goes on to call out Osborne’s corruption and whoring.

Waad is now ensnared in Osborne’s trap. Osborne is head of the militia, and calls the letter treason. Waad is arrested and, because it is a weekend, Osborne is able to call together only his cronies (and not the full militia) to determine Waad’s fate. The action is swift. Waad is executed by firing squad. Osborne takes over his estate and management on behalf of his nephew, who is Waad’s heir.

This story is true. I only wish I’d been able to find an image of Osborne to see if his countenance shows his personality. His interactions with Elvy are imagined and highly likely, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more!

Secrets of a Guided Meditation

Years ago I attended a spiritual retreat on a Thanksgiving weekend, and experienced my first guided meditation. The guide was a woman I knew and trusted, so it made the trip easier for a skeptic like me. And, her voice was as confident as it was soothing. She had more than a hundred listeners captivated. It was the “secret garden” meditation that invites the listener to imagine a peaceful and beautiful place all their own where they can fully relax.

It was a powerful experience for me — I never knew I had a secret garden but sure enough she led me to it, and I have used it for years to escape stress or grief. But I also found other uses from the experience. The techniques apply as well to storytelling. I think the secrets to a successful meditation are these:

1. Reduce the barriers. My existing trust meant a major barrier for me already was down, but my friend’s voice was calming, and she walked us through a relaxation procedure that helped level the walls even further.
2. Take the audience where they already want to go. Who doesn’t want to go to a secret garden? But there might be other things we want, too, like a health for ourselves or others, or release from fear or anger.
3. Promise a reward. At the secret garden we would find peace. At the end of the meditation, my friend said, we would feel lighter, and might open our minds to unexpected visions. If you found yourself going down a negative path, stop and begin again. You are in control.

My friend took the meditation a step further and had us meet ourselves, we as adults meeting the small child that we once were. What did the child look like? What might she say? How would we feel about that child? It was a remarkable experience for those who gave in to it. I remembered the child I saw well enough to paint a watercolor of her later.

I drew on this experience when writing chapter 21, “Army of Souls,” in Sharavogue. This is when the healer leads the slaves through a meditation to heal the fevered protagonist. Together they visit the palace of the feared witch Mabouya who has captured the girl and keeps her sick so that she, Mabouya, will not be alone. In Mabouya’s arms the girl has become an infant. The slaves want to rescue the child from the evil Mabouya. Through the shared vision, the slaves become the army of souls to steal the child away and restore her to the physical world. Success in outsmarting Mabouya is their reward. And Mabouya was real and feared by the slaves of Montserrat in the 1650s, so the story is grounded in truth.

It is a hypnosis of sorts, and a great success if a writer can lull readers enough to forget the physical world if only for a few minutes and go with the flow of a story. For me it’s a reminder of how our personal experiences can enrich the detail of writing, and at the same time allow the author to relive a profound point in time.

St. Patrick’s in Montserrat

An image from a recent St. Pat's celebration on the island

An image from a recent St. Pat’s celebration on the island

On the tiny, volcanic island of Montserrat, St. Patrick’s Day gets a full week of celebration with festive feasting, fishing, hiking and lots of music. There’s a Goat Water Sale commemorating the traditional stew made with goat meat, and a “slave feast” recalling the island’s history of sugar and tobacco plantations worked by slaves.

Sometimes people are shocked to learn that the Irish who came to Montserrat in the mid-17th century actually owned slaves. Why would they who had been enslaved and treated live vermin by the English condone slavery in their own plantations? Those who were lucky enough to find land there that did not already belong to the English were eager to work it, but they quickly learned that because there was so much work to be done and most of it by hand, there was no way to operate at a profit without free labor.

A 1995 white paper by William E. West chronicles what happened to the Irish during that period:

In 1641, Irelands population was 1,466,000 and in 1652, 616,000. According to Sir William Petty, 850,000 were wasted by the sword, plague, famine, hardship and banishment during the Confederation War 1641-1652. At the end of the war, vast numbers of Irish men, women and children were forcibly transported to the American colonies by the English government.7 These people were rounded up like cattle, and, as Prendergast reports on Thurloes State Papers8 Pub. London, 1742, “In clearing the ground for the adventurers and soldiers the English capitalists of that day… To be transported to Barbados and the English plantations in America. It was a measure beneficial to Ireland, which was thus relieved of a population that might trouble the planters; it was a benefit to the people removed, which might thus be made English and Christians … a great benefit to the West India sugar planters, who desired men and boys for their bondsmen, and the women and Irish girls… To solace them.”9

SugarandSlavesThe book Sugar and Slaves by Richard S. Dunn covers the story in vivid detail and informed much of my research for Sharavogue. Another book, If the Irish Ran the World, details the Irish experience with slavery. IrishRanWorld

Truly it was a bad time for both the Irish and the Africans. After such pain and turmoil, it is a great recommendation of the human spirit that the people of Montserrat have found a brilliant way on St. Pat’s Day to combine and celebrate the cultures that collided there and now have melded together.

More about the celebration here